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In Love with Words by Bradley J. Birzer

In Love with Words

love of books

As far back as I can remember, my mother always had new books to offer me.

When I was just staring to read, she gave me Dr. Seuss and Richard Scary books. These were my favorites.

As soon as I was old enough to ride my bike any distance at all, she had me get a library card, and she always had the schedule for where the library’s book mobile would be on any given day. I got to know the librarians in my little Kansas town well, and they always had suggestions for me. I had a rather boyish crush on Ms. Canfield at the city’s public library, and I considered my high school librarian, George Story, one of the wittiest and best-read persons I’ve had the privilege to know in this life.

Through all of my pre-college years, my mom always served as a wondrous source for great reading suggestions. An avid reader herself, she also taught primary school for 41 years, and she had a solid and sometimes downright uncanny sense of what I should read and when I should read it. Continue reading

Against Conformity by Bradley J. Birzer


Against Conformity

by Bradley J. Birzer

This week, on Facebook, The Imaginative Conservative republicized the late Joseph Sobran’s article regarding the supposed errors of Abraham Lincoln. While one should never have too much faith in commentators on the internet, especially those who hide behind anonymity, one rather outraged and intelligent young man posted something to the effect of “I don’t know why The Imaginative Conservative hates Lincoln so much.”

I couldn’t disagree more with the tone of this comment. As Peter Lawler has reminded readers on more than one occasion, The Imaginative Conservative is one of the—if not the—most open minded, broad, and ecumenical websites in the conservative, broadly understood and defined, world.

If this young man thought this through, one must wonder what he believes happens at The Imaginative Conservative headquarters. Does he have an image of Editor-in-Chief Winston Elliott as a sword or whip-wielding editor, forcing every post through some ideological churn, separating the “pure” from the “impure”? Frankly, the idea of the writers of The Imaginative Conservative having a group mind or some kind of conformist view of things is simply absurd.

Aside from this, I believe it critical—absolutely critical—to note that a conservatism that embraces conformity or group think is no conservatism at all. It is merely a bizarre and unthinking traditionalism.

Any real conservatism must take into account several things. First, conservatism must accept the principle that each person is a unique reflection of the infinite. That is, each new person in the world arrives in a certain time and place, armed with certain gifts and weighed down by general faults. This person will never be repeated. She is unique, a particular manifestation of the Infinite and loving face of God.

Second, a real conservatism must accept that there are limits not only to the knowledge and wisdom any one person or group of persons understand or possess, but also a limit to what humanity—from Adam to the last man—can understand.

For as far back as I can remember, conservatism, broadly defined, struck me as the only sensible and humane way to view the world. The liberals I knew and saw in the news (Tip O’Neill and others) were among the most conformist, intolerant, and unimaginative lot…imaginable. When I heard others argue that liberalism (classical or modern) is good because it defends free speech, art, etc., I found it highly implausible. Anyone with the power of reason and observation knew these things to be blatantly and utterly false.

Of course, I read like a madman. In particular, I credit the reading of 1984Fahrenheit 451, andBrave New World as well as the discovery of the rock band Rush at the age of 13 with dramatically shaping my own skepticism regarding conformity and my dread of authority.

Indeed, one of the things I love most about the “right” of the 1940s and 1950s was its desire to fight authority and proclaim the dignity of the human person. Think of Bernard Iddings Bell’s amazing book, Crowd Culture, Kirk’s struggle against “capitalists, socialists, and communists” in a Prospects for Conservatives, Eliot’s call for a “Republic of Letters,” Bradbury’s chastisement of the censors, and, especially, Thomas Merton’s claiming that the mass man is somehow even below fallen humanity.

As I grow older, I’m no longer as sure that conservatism is the protector of real diversity. I’ve not changed my mind about liberals or liberalism as a whole. Liberalism, or what remained of it, ran its course by the beginning of World War II. But, recently, I’ve seen the same trends in those who call themselves conservative or who embrace what they call “conservatism.” Now, I must wonder if what I saw in the 1980s was merely that the conservatives had yet to succumb to the forces of mass thought, group think, etc.

So many people among modern conservatism are, frankly, buffoons. Think about the governor of a western state who became a candidate for a major office and then the “star” of a reality show. Really? Or, how about the well-endowed plastic people on FOX? Or how about those with grand media access who claim to speak for the rest of us? These so called conservatives denigrate the liberal arts, mock women, and undermine our most sacred traditions. Give me a Kirk, a Bradbury, a Merton any day over these fruit-nuts.

I am not a name or a number, I am a free man. And, so are you.


Christopher Dawson & Christendom by Bradley J. Birzer

Christopher Dawson & Christendom

Dawson books

by Bradley J. Birzer

The Christendom trilogy served as the last great work of English-Welsh historian and man of letters Christopher Dawson (1889-1970).  Sort of.  The trilogy derived, originally, from lectures Dawson had delivered while teaching at Harvard University between 1958 and 1962. As desired, the Christendom trilogy would consist of The Formation of Christendom (1967); The Dividing of Christendom (1965); and The Return to Christian Unity. (1)  In the broad, each volume represented one of three great periods of the Christian world: the ancient-medieval nexus; the Reformation and Counter Reformation; and the Church in the age of democracy, nationalisms, and ideologies.

(We hope you will read this excellent essay by TIC co-founder Bradley Birzer on Christopher Dawson. The complete essay can be found here on The Catholic World Report.)

Books mentioned in or related to this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Essays by Dr. Birzer may be found here.

Dr. Bradley J. Birzer is co-founder of The Imaginative Conservative and a Senior Contributor. He is the author of Sanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher DawsonJ.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth, and American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll. He is also author of The Humane Republic: The Imagination of Russell Kirk (forthcoming, University Press of Kentucky). Dr. Birzer also teaches Catholics in the Public Square  for Catholic Courses. This essay appears in full onThe Catholic Word Report and is linked here with the permission of the author.


Mark Twain and Russell Kirk against the Machine by Bradley J. Birzer

Mark Twain and Russell Kirk against the Machine

mark twainby Bradley J. Birzer

Though neither a humanist nor a Christian—nor, for that matter, even a romantic in the vein of Blake who feared the “dark Satanic mills” of Industrial England—Mark Twain identified the late-nineteenth century fear of the machine run amok perfectly in his last novel, the tragically whimsical A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.  One of the first to use time travel as a plot device, the story revolves around Hank Morgan, an engineer devoid of any poetry or sentiment.  As his German last name indicates, he is the man of “tomorrow.”  A practical man schooled in the servile rather than the liberal arts, Morgan can create almost any type of mechanism: “guns, revolvers, cannon, boilers, engines, all sorts of labor-saving machinery.” A materialist, he “could make anything a body wanted—anything in the world, it didn’t make a difference what; and if there wasn’t any quick new-fangled way to make a thing, [he] could invent one.”  He was also, Hank assures the reader, “full of fight.”  And, a conflict employing crowbars with one of his employees, a man named Hercules, results in severe blow to Morgan’s head, knocking him unconscious.

When Morgan awakes, he finds himself in Arthurian England.[1]  Whether he really has traveled back thirteen centuries or is merely in an insane asylum, Morgan decides that he will become, significantly, “boss.”[2]  True to his desires, Morgan slowly gains control of England.  The process, to be sure, is not an easy one.  Morgan has to fight monarchical government, aristocratic culture, the Catholic Church, and a population ignorant of classical economics.   This strange world, as he believes, is nothing but medieval darkness and superstition, a people kept from democracy and enjoyment of their natural rights by wicked forces.  To counter the traditional stalwarts of Arthurian society, Morgan builds factories, indoctrinates young boys in his schools—known as “man factories—and introduces laissez-faire competition in the market place.  To placate the knights of the Round Table, he forms a baseball league so that the participants can demonstrate their manliness in non-violent ways.  After living in Arthurian England for three years, he decides to establish universal suffrage and “overthrow the Catholic Church and set up the Protestant faith on its ruins—not as an Established Church, but as a go-as-you-please-one.”[3]  Fearing that Morgan has taken things too far, the Catholic Church imposes an Interdict upon Morgan and his followers.  Only a few remain faithful to Morgan, and an army of twenty-five thousand knights of Christendom challenge Morgan’s attempt at modernity.  In response, Morgan selects fifty-two loyal boys between the ages of 14 and 17 as his soldiers.  Why these?  “Because all the others were born in an atmosphere of superstition and reared in it.  It is in their blood and bones,” Morgan explains.  “We imagined we had educated it out of them; they thought so too; the Interdict woke them up like a thunderclap!”[4]  The fifty-two boys, Morgan, and one friend, hole up in a cave, awaiting the attack. Continue reading

Stoicism & Incarnationalism by Bradley J. Birzer

stoicismStoicism & Incarnationalism

by Bradley J. Birzer
March 13, 2013

From the Christian perspective, the Logos is the beginning, the middle, and the end of time and history, and history itself is a reflection of the Logos. Each person—from Adam to the last person—is a finite reflection of the Infinite, a bearer of the Image of God, an incarnate soul. In the stunningly poetic prologue to his gospel, St. John assures us the Logos is that which enlightens every man. The logos is, then, divine reason. It is not, however, a synonym of rationality. Instead, its closest synonym would be “imagination,” stemming from the image implanted in our soul by the divine. As imagination, the soul balances rationality (or the monarchical part of the human person) of the brain and the passions (or the democratic part of the human) of the stomach. To rely only on rationality is to become an automaton; to rely only on passion is to become an animal. The aristocratic soul balances these things—through the image of the Word—in the republic of our person. Paradoxically, that which makes us most human is that which is the least human part about us.

When enlightened by the Word, the soul allows us to see and think beyond our five senses and our subjective logic, no matter how rigorous our intellectual faculties might be. It allows us to see the world as it is and as it was meant to be; it allows us to live as a member of the City of God as we sojourn through the City of Man; it allows us to create and, to use Tolkien’s term, sub-create art and not propaganda; and it allows us, very importantly, to speak with another person not through the lens of this or that prejudice (i.e. that is, shaped by biology, politics, or ideology) but as a soul to a soul—each a reflection of all that is true, good, and beautiful) but as one bearer of the Imago Dei to another bearer of the Imago Dei.

The concept of the Logos is much older than St. John’s sanctification of the term in his Gospel. One can jump back at least 100 years before Socrates to one of the first philosophers, Heraclitus of Ephesus. Looking for the “Urstoff”–the substance that holds all things together, the first principle, the unifying principle—Heraclitus claimed it to be fire, identifying it as LOGOS: reason, a word, a speech, an ejaculation. “For the waking there is one common world,” Heraclitus wrote. “But when asleep each person turns away to a private one.”

When cognizant and reasonable, the philosopher continued, a man finds himself a citizen of a lawful city, itself upheld by the one law of the one divine law.

Throughout a man’s life, his search for the extent of the Logos cannot be ended. “You would not discover the limits of the soul although you traveled every road: so deep a logos does it have.”

Continue reading

Christopher Dawson and the Humility of the Liberal Arts by Bradley J. Birzer

Christopher Dawson and the Humility of the Liberal Arts

by Bradley J. Birzer, TIC co-editor
October 10, 2012
One of the greatest Catholic intellects and writers of the twentieth century, Christopher Dawson (1889-1970), worried deeply about the ideological, political, and cultural crises of the western world during the entirety of his adult life. The root of the problem, Dawson had come to believe between the two world wars, was the fundamental decline in the significance, love, and cultivation of ideas and respect for the faculty of imagination.

For nearly a century, Dawson feared, the western world had, in all of its technological and scientific “progress” simplified its understanding of the immense complexities of man. The great intellects of the nineteenth century—men such as Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, and Sigmund Freud—had narrowed the understandings of what motivates a man, be it economics, biological adaptation, or misunderstood sexual longings at a young age. While any one of these things might be true, it is far more likely that each is true, along with millions of other complicated and complicating factors. Man, Dawson knew, could not be understood in merely simplistic, materialist terms. By his very nature of bearing the infinite Imago Dei, finite man carried a uniqueness within him that was genuine and irreplaceable, no matter how hidden such gifts might be to the person himself.

By the 1930s, ideological regimes—democratic as well as fascist and socialist—were centralizing, collectivizing, and mechanizing. One only had to look at the ideological armies, unfurling flags of red (communist), blue (liberal/capitalist), pink (socialist), black (conservative), and brown (National Socialists) to see how ridiculous things had become. As if any person, persons, or idea worth any thing could be symbolized by a color. . . . The narrowing of ideas in the 19th century had become the very narrowing of reality in the 20th century. Propaganda had replaced art, the pamphlet had replaced literature, and the greats of western civilization were dismissed as elitist and irrelevant to a modern world. How wrong all of this was, Dawson knew. Such propaganda demeaned the human person as it appealed to the lowest parts of him—his emotions, his passions, his instincts. Man “becomes a subordinate part of the great mechanical system that his scientific genius has created,” Dawson lamented. “In the same way, the economic process, which led to the exploitation of the world by man and the vast increase of his material resources, ends in the subjection of man to the rule of the machine and the mechanisation of human life.”[1]

To follow the course of the ideologues, Dawson feared in 1938, would only end in the “mechanical monster,” and the regulation and de-personalization of every aspect of life. Such mechanization would homogenize every human person and every individual culture into one cosmopolitan, bland mess. Already, modernity had brought about horrible mechanization. Even something as seemingly innocuous as the automobile, meant to make life more convenient, had done nothing but “bring mutilation and death to large numbers of harmless people. We see it on a large scale in the way that the modern industrial system, which exists to serve human needs, nevertheless reduces the countryside to smoking desolation and involves whole populations in periodic troughs of depression and scarcity,” Dawson lamented. “But we see it in its most extreme and devilish form in modern warfare which has a nightmare quality about it and is hardly reconcilable with a human origin or purpose.”[2] Mass society will lead to the destruction of true individuality, and society will “dissolve into a human herd without personality.”[3]

The result of such conformity, Dawson argued, would be “the Kingdom of Antichrist.”[4] After all, the new ideological states are “inevitably contaminated with all sorts of impure elements and open to the influence of evil and demonic forces.”[5] The situation was as bleak as could be imagined. “For the first time in the world’s history the Kingdom of the Anti-Christ has acquired political form and social substance, and stands over against the Kingdom of God as a counter-church with its own creed and its own moral ideals, ruled by a centralized hierarchy and inspired by an intense will for world conquest.”[6]

In these fears and beliefs, Dawson was not alone. A number of humanist and Christian Humanist thinkers—Irving Babbitt, Paul Elmer More, T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis, Jacques Maritain, and Romano Guardini, to name a few—had made similar arguments.

The decline, as noted above, had begun at the beginning of the 1930s, but it had only worsened by the mid 1940s. “One has to face the fact that there has been a kind of slump in ideas,” he confided to his closest friend. “There is not only a positive lack of new ideas but also a subjective loss of interest in ideas as such” (Dawson, private letter, August 26, 1946). Mars had hastened the growth of Leviathan. “We are still living much under the shadow of war and the uncertainty of the future of Europe is unfavourable to creative work,” Dawson wrote in a private letter, Sept. 9, 1946. Ideological limitations and propaganda were quickly pervading thought, art, and music in the various Christian churches (Catholic and Protestant), Dawson argued. “The modern theologians in ceasing to be poets have also ceased to be philosophers” (Dawson, private letter, July 28, 1946).

While the reconstruction of Christendom, should it even be possible, Dawson argued in a series of articles and books between 1946 and 1962, would prove exceedingly difficult, it must begin with a proper understanding of the liberal arts and the western tradition. The two were intimately related, one to another. “Virgil and Cicero, Ovid and Seneca, Horace and Quintilian were not merely school books, they became the seeds of a new growth of classical humanism in Western soil,” Christopher Dawson wrote in 1956. “Again and again—in the eighth century as well as in the twelfth and fifteenth centuries—the higher culture of Western Europe was fertilized by renewed contacts with the literary sources of classical culture.”[7]

The liberal arts must also embrace and engage, at a fundamental level, the faculty of imagination. Only the latter would prevent the narrowing decay of an understanding of the world and the human person. Indeed, the imagination should not only allow a person to place himself within the created order and realize his relations with God and other men (a play on the classic definition of justice, to “give each man his due”), but it should also reveal to the human person just how extraordinarily complicated the world is. Consequently, the liberal arts humble and elevate the human person simultaneously, connecting a person to both time and eternity.

During the sixteen years prior to a series of strokes that forced Dawson into retirement, the English Roman Catholic offered a number of suggestions as to how to revive the liberal arts. He developed a four-year curriculum for Catholic Colleges, began to edit a series of works on the lives of the saints (the real movers of history, from Dawson’s perspective), and the formation of a new religious order dedicated to the Christian intellect. Unfortunately, poor health, poor administration skills, and poor fund-raising abilities hindered Dawson in each of these efforts.

Still, Dawson never ceased to remind us of the necessity of the liberal arts as citizens of the West and of Christendom. It is appropriate to end with his words, a challenge to each of us.

Western man has not been faithful to his Christian tradition. He has abandoned it not once, but again and again. For since Christianity depends on a living faith and not merely on social tradition, Christendom must be renewed every fresh generation, and every generation is faced by the responsibility of making decisions, each of which may be an act of Christian faith or an act of apostasy.[8] 

For a full account of Dawson, see Birzer, Sanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson (2007).

[1] Dawson, “Christianity and the New Age,” 162. See also, Dawson, “European Democracy and the New Economic Forces,” The Sociological Review 22 (1930): 33.

[2] Dawson, Beyond Politics, 5-6.

[3] Dawson, Beyond Politics, 79.

[4] Dawson, Beyond Politics, 113.

[5] Dawson, Beyond Politics, 132; and Dawson, “The Hour of Darkness,” The Tablet (December 2, 1939): 625.

[6] Dawson, quoted in The Ave Maria (2 June 1934), 695.

[7] Dawson, “Christianity and Ideologies,” Commonweal, May 11 1956, 141. See also Richard M. Gamble’s masterful, The Great Tradition: Classic Readings on What it Means to be an Educated Human Being (Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 2007).

[8] Dawson, Historic Reality of Christian Culture, 17.

The Historical Vision of St. Augustine by Brad Birzer

The Historical Vision of St. Augustine

by Brad Birzer

Brad Birzer 

One would be hard pressed to find a greater influence on two of the finest Catholic Humanists of the twentieth century, Christopher Dawson and Russell Amos Kirk, than St. Augustine. One only has to employ the imagination to jump back sixteen centuries to see the parallels. At midnight, August 24, 410, Alaric and his Gothic warriors entered the gates of Rome and sacked the city, pillaging, raping, and murdering for nearly three solid days. Though the western empire had been crumbling for years due to cultural, political, and economic decadence, the actual event of the breach of Rome’s walls stunned and shattered the western world. Rome, the common thought ran throughout the Occident, was to last forever. It was, after all, as Jupiter had promised Venus in the Aeneid, the eternal city.

And, lest new fears disturb thy happy state, [Jupiter had promised]
Know, I have search’d the mystic rolls of Fate:
Thy son (nor is th’ appointed season far)
In Italy shall wage successful war,
Shall tame fierce nations in the bloody field,
And sov’reign laws impose, and cities build,
Of martial tow’rs the founder shall become,
The people Romans call, the city Rome.
To them no bounds of empire I assign,
Nor term of years to their immortal line.

Whatever the promises of Virgilian Stoic Myth, Germanic reality hit the western empire hard.

Reeling from the onslaught of the barbarians, St. Augustine stood firm in his opposition to the pagans and their challenge that Rome fell because it ignored the old gods. Gracefully, he turned the evil of the destruction of the Germanic tribes into something good. His defense came in the form of one of the most important and influential works of Christianity, The City of God (413-426). It would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of this work, as it became, for all intents and purposes, the theological, social, cultural, and political handbook for the middle ages. Through the writing of the City of God, St. Augustine also importantly came to realize that though Rome may have fallen, Christianity stood strong. “Though he was a loyal Roman and a scholar who realized the value of Greek thought, he regarded these things as temporary and accidental,” Christopher Dawson explained. “He lived not by the light of Athens and Alexandria, but by a new light that had suddenly dawned on the world from the East only a few centuries earlier.” The essence of Christianity remained, no matter what the accidents appeared as. Truth is eternal, St. Augustine understood, but cities, kingdoms, and civilizations are fleeting. For St. Augustine, Rome represented the City of Man, in its paganism, its decadence, and its earlier torture of Christians; Jerusalem represented the City of God.

As with St. Augustine, Dawson and Kirk looked out over a ruined world: a world on one side controlled by ideologues, and, consequently, a world of the Gulag, the Holocaust camps, the killing fields, and total war—a world that claimed nearly 205 million in state-sanctioned murder alone; on the other: a world of the pleasures of the flesh, Ad-Men, and what C.S. Lewis labeled the democratic “conditioners” to be found, especially, in bureaucracies and in higher institutions of education, almost all of which had forsaken the liberal for the servile arts.  Both East and West had become dogmatically materialist, Dawson and Kirk feared, though after radically different fashions. The West pursued material greed and embraced avarice, while the East made anything spiritual illegal, immoral, and, ultimately, fatal. Each side, Dawson and Kirk believed, mechanized men, making them less than what God or nature had originally desired them to be. In almost every way, the devastation of Dawson’s and Kirk’s twentieth-century world was far greater than that of St. Augustine’s fifth-century world. At least barbarian man believed in something greater than himself. One could confront him as a man, a man who knew who he was and what he believed, however false that belief might be to the Christians. As Chesterton stated in the poetic prophecy of King Alfred, the great Anglo-Saxon king of the late 9th century, describing the intellectuals and ideologues of the twentieth century:

They shall come mild as monkish clerks
With many a scroll and pen;
And backward shall ye turn and gaze
Desiring one of Alfred’s days,
When pagans were still men.

Rooted in nothing, modern and post-modern men, Dawson and Kirk feared, tend to accept readily and, perhaps, insatiably, the false, substitute religions of modernity. If they reject Christianity and the deeper things of the western tradition, Dawson and Kirk argued, they will readily grasp for anything proclaiming truth that comes their way: fascism, National Socialism, or communism.

Fifteen centuries after St. Augustine, Dawson and Kirk believed, the barbarians were again at the gates, and the world faced a similar crisis. There “are moments when the obscurity of history seems to be suddenly illuminated by some sign of divine purpose,” Dawson wrote in 1959 from his newly endowed chair at Harvard. “These are the moments of crisis in the literal sense of the word—times of judgment when the powers of this world are tried and condemned and when the course of history suddenly flows into a new channel. Such was the age of the Hebrew prophets, such was the age of St. Augustine, and such is the age in which we have the privilege and misfortune to live today.” And, like his patron St. Augustine, Dawson wanted to employ his energy and imagination—a freely given gift by the Light of the Logos and by the Holy Spirit, he argued—to bring the world back to right reason and first principles. As Dawson wrote of St. Augustine:
To the materialist, nothing could be more futile than the spectacle of Augustine busying himself with the reunion of the African Church and the refutation of the Pelagians, while civilisation was falling to pieces about his ears. To him the ruin of civilisation and the destruction of the Empire were not very important things. He looked beyond the aimless and bloody chaos of the world to the world of eternal realities from which the world of sense derives all the significance it possesses.
Dawson could have easily been writing about himself and his role in the twentieth century, confronting the newly emerging technological and secularized world ruled by the ideologues of the left and right. Dawson’s body of work, historian of theology Aidan Nichols has recently argued, is itself “best thought of as a latter-day City of God.”

Indeed, one of the most neglected topics of the Catholic literary revival of the twentieth century is the role St. Augustine played. Most scholars of Christian Humanism and the literary revival have focused on the importance of Pope Leo’s 1879 encyclical on the necessity of reviving the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, Aeterni Patris (“On the Restoration of Christian Philosophy”), and the subsequent development of neo-Thomism, led by such powerful intellects and personalities as Jacques Maritain.

Though few scholars have written on Augustinianism in the twentieth century, it would be difficult to overemphasize the saint’s importance. His connection to Dawson has just been explicitly noted; St. Augustine served as Dawson’s patron saint, and friends sent Dawson cards and greetings on August 28th. St. Augustine served as a similar patron to Russell Kirk. Russell Amos Kirk became Russell Amos Augustine Kirk when he formally entered the Roman Catholic Church in 1964. In his autobiography, Kirk wrote, using the third person, “Reading the fathers of the Church, Augustine and Gregory and Ambrose especially, Kirk gave up his previous spiritual individualism.” St. Augustine’s words, especially, made Kirk realize the value of community: “‘The calm judgment of the world is that those men cannot be good who, in any part of the world, cut themselves off from the rest of the world.’ Therefore, the Church had been raised up.” Kirk provides an answer for his own fascination with Augustine in his The Roots of American Order, published ten years after his conversion. Augustine’s greatest work, The City of God “speaks to some twentieth-century minds and consciences with a power that the disasters of our own time augment,” Kirk wrote. St. Augustine “so neglected today, perhaps has more to teach this age than has any other philosopher,” Kirk wrote in the pages of his regular column of National Review in 1967.

Dawson had written something similar nearly a decade earlier:

The only remedy is to be found in that spiritual force by which the humility of God conquers the pride of the evil one. Hence the spiritual reformer cannot expect to have the majority on his side. He must be prepared to stand alone like Ezekiael and Jeremy. He must take as his example St. Augustine besieged by the Vandals at Hippo, or St. Gregory preaching at Rome with the Lombards at the gates. For the true helpers of the world are the poor in spirit, the men who bear the sign of the cross on their foreheads, who refused to be overcome by the triumph of injustice and put their sole trust in the salvation of God.

For Dawson and Kirk, St. Augustine served as both the lodestar in confronting the evils of the world and as a means by which the modern traditionalist should navigate in turbulent ideological waters. As Dawson’s publisher and friend, Frank Sheed, wrote in his own autobiography, St. Augustine should take his place as one of the six most important thinkers in the twentieth-century Catholic literary revival. Sheed’s other five were Dawson, Belloc, Chesterton, C.C. Martindale, and Ronald Knox. “Every man living in the Western world would be a different man if Augustine had not been, or had been different.” He was, in many ways, as Sheed, Dawson, and Kirk believed, a nexus in the world. He not only served as a geographical nexus, bridging Africa with Rome, Europe, and the Holy Land, but he was, more importantly, a nexus between the classical and the medieval worlds. Like Plato and Aristotle and Cicero, he came at the end of a civilization, and he recorded all that he could of what had come before him, allowing a remnant to benefit from such understandings. Certainly, Dawson and Kirk might have seen themselves in the same position, and, as their compatriot across the ocean, C.S. Lewis wrote, they were, in essence, “Old Western Men.” They wrote on the other side of the Great Divide. So, like Augustine, Dawson and Kirk believed they too might have come at the end of an era, and they did what they could to preserve the rest of the western tradition for future generations.

Because time is short, I will only give a brief example of the Augustinianism in their respective philosophies of history. The City of God, Dawson explained, was “a vast synthesis which embraces the history of the whole human race and its destinies in time and eternity.” Larger than a study of mere fact or a laying out of a sequence of names and dates, St. Augustine’s City of God is “metahistory.”

Metahistory is concerned with the nature of history, the meaning of history and the cause and significance of historical change. The historian himself is primarily engaged in the study of the past. He does not ask himself why the past is different from the present or what is the meaning of history as a whole. What he wants to know is what actually happened at a particular time and place and what effect it had on the immediate future.

Unlike history, metahistory posits a truth about philosophy and theology. True metahistory has a sense of poetry to it. “The mastery of” professional historical methods and “techniques will not produce great history, any more than a mastery of metrical technique will produce great poetry.” The metahistorian, will recognize that “something more is necessary—intuitive understanding, creative imagination, and finally a universal vision transcending the relative limitation of the particular field of historical study.” The metahistorian, like the poet, then, should be divinely inspired, accepting the creativity offered by the love of the Holy Spirit, the source of all creativity and imagination. So armed, the historian should recognize the Creator and glorify the creation. The professional historian, Dawson claimed, will often fall into the trap of antiquarianism, thus diminishing the profundity of history as a divine instrument.

Kirk agreed. “To seek for truths in history. . . distinctly is not to indulge in dreamy visions of unborn ages, or to predict the inevitability of some political domination. Rather, the truths of history, the real meanings, are to be discovered in what history can teach us about the framework of the Logos, if you will: about the significance of human existence: about the splendor and the misery of our condition. In this inquiry, there must be joined with the historical discipline certain insights of philosophy and psychology. For historical consciousness necessarily is entwined with the mystery of personal consciousness.”

For Kirk, Dawson, and St. Augustine, one cannot readily separate one’s own story from the real story—the story of the Logos. We are after all, each thought, little words made in the Image of the Word. “In Him we move and live and have our being.” It is our job to use the gifts given to each one of us uniquely, and, with the Blessed Virgin Mary as our model, allow our souls to magnify the Lord. In his 1956 work, Beyond the Dreams of Avarice, Kirk concluded that the defender of the western tradition must view the world as did St. Augustine. “Yet that a darkness without solace or hope, a darkness of the pit, may not descend upon a society in this century, we need to refresh our memories with the recollection of what already had been lost from our culture and our civil social order,” Kirk wrote, “and we have the high duty of keeping alight amid the Vandal flood, like Augustine of Hippo, the spark of principle and conscience.”


Big Big Train: Chaos Flees Before Beauty by Bradley J. Brizer

Big Big Train:  Chaos Flees Before Beauty

by Bradley J. Birzer

One of my favorite things in life is to arrive at a symphony performance early. How amazing is it to watch the individual members of the orchestra take their respective seats and begin tuning their individual instruments. Each person does just this without command or direction. Each, however, knows her or his place, and each begins to get the individual instrument ready.

There’s a wonderful cacophony for up to 30 minutes prior to the performance as the members of the audience arrive–also with no preplanned, specific schedule. Some come early, some come late. Some rush in, some meander and converse.

No arrival, tuning, or preparation is ever exactly the same. Ever. Over hundreds of years, no arrival or preparation for the performance can or ever has been repeated. It’s in its genius to be unique. And, yet, when the conductor appears and receives his or her due applause, all things that were spontaneous come to order.

Chaos flees before beauty.

For those of us who have been following the progression and evolution of Big Big Train’s work, this image is apt. For two years now, I’ve considered “The Underfall Yard” to be THE definitive work of the rock world of the past two decades. It stands in line with the best of early Yes and late Talk Talk. Indeed, I’m fully convinced that someone writing a piece similar to this in twenty years or so, will look back on this period as not only the highest part of BBT’s career but as a highlight of progressive rock and certainly of non-classical music.

From “Gathering Speed” through “The Difference Machine” through “The Underfall Yard” through “Far Skies Deep Time,” chaos flees before beauty.

But, as I listen to the promo version of “English Electric Part I” over and over again, I am struck with this crucial realization. Nothing could ever top “Fragile,” but “Close to the Edge” did. Nothing could ever best “The Colour of Spring,” but “Spirit of Eden” did. Nothing could surpass the excellence and beauty of “The Underfall Yard,” but “English Electric” has.

No chaos reigns here. Nor does whirl. But, Heimdahl keeps watch and the world seems just a little more glorious for 59 minutes.

EEP1 is a thing of absolute and intense beauty, truth, and goodness. It comes as close to reaching the Platonic ideal of the forms as any album can. It’s intense, hurried, lingering, pastoral, necessary, longing, bouncy, pleading, satisfying, answering, punctuated, loud, quiet, meaningful, and, over and above all, harmonious.* 

Common themes abound throughout–especially the mistakes of men, the genius of the inventor and observer, and the hidden (only because we’ve lost sight) and discoverable mysteries of creation. BBT’s music transcends our day-to-day lives in ways that surpass words. Well, at least they surpass my ability to express all of my thoughts in mere words.

The listener will find himself in the fight of his life in “The First Rebreather.” He will want to drink in the wisdom of “Uncle Jack.” He will want to stand with King Alfred in “Winchester.” He will despise the deceptive with “Judas Unrepentant.” She will be called to nostalgia as the temporal dissolves connecting the past, the present, and the future in “Summoned by the Bells” and “Upton Heath.” The listener will long for the heroism of an absent mother in “A Boy in Darkness.” Finally, the listener will find herself immersed in the very mystery of the cycles of nature in “Hedgerow.”

While an autumnal melancholy permeates all of BBT’s music, “English Electric Part I” possesses a much greater vernal quality than does all of the band’s brilliant works leading up to it. There’s a joy and an emotion in EEP1 that takes not only BBT but also the listener into a new direction.

This English spring is not superficial, as many springs are. Indeed, what BBT has planted here can’t be undone, as it’s rooted in all things that will never die, it’s rooted in eternity itself, and the spheres of Plato’s mythos rejoice and spin.

While I want to be immersed in the music I love (or, I wouldn’t love it), I’ve never quite felt the immersion experience as deeply as I have with “The First Rebreather,” with “A Boy in Darkness,” and with “Hedgerow.” Each of these songs calls forth a powerful and essentially uncontrollable emotional reaction. And, to be blunt, the entire album does this is a way I’ve not experienced since I first heard all of “Spirit of Eden” back in the fall of 1988.

“English Electric” is “The Underfall Yard” but beyond. It is deeper, and it is wider. Here, everything works in perfect justice. Greg Spawton, David Longdon, Andy Poole, Dave Gregory, and Nick D’Virgilio are, for all intents and purposes, JUSTICE classically-defined. As the ancients well understood, justice is “giving each man his due.”

As I think about what must have gone into the making of EEP1, I’m reminded of one of my favorite passages from C.S. Lewis’s The Four Loves. In his chapter on friendship, he wrote:

Lambs says somewhere that if, of three friends (A, B, and C), A should die, then B loses not only A but ‘A’s part in C,’ while C loses not only A but ‘A’s part in B.’ In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets. Now that Charles is dead, I shall never again see Ronald’s reaction to a specifically Caroline joke. Far from having more of Ronald, having him ‘to myself’ now that Charles is away, I have less of Ronald. Hence true Friendship is the least jealous of loves.

When Lewis wrote this, Charles Williams had already passed away, and his once best friendship with J.R.R. Tolkien (Ronald) had long since disintegrated.

I quote this not to be melancholy but to be inspired. 

When Greg and Andy brought in Dave, David, and Nick, they did not merely add, they integrated in the way only true friendship and justice can allow. That is, while Greg brings something special out of Dave G., David L. brings something special out of Greg. Something that only each of them can bring out of another. 

BBT is a symbol of all that is good in true friendship. BBT doesn’t just “work,” it thrives and creates and explores and progresses and loves and challenges.

And, how blessed are we to be able to witness and share in such a thing? 

Beyond measure.

Thus, the spontaneous finds order, and chaos flees before beauty. 

 Thank you, Greg, David, Andy, Dave, and Nick.

To celebrate the beauty of creativity, TIC is very proud to be able to give away five signed copies of Big Big Train’s English Electric Part I.  To be eligible, you only have to post a comment at TIC on a blog post pertaining to Big Big Train or on a TIC/FB post on FB.  Make sure we’re able to get an email address for you so we know how to get ahold of you on September 3.  Best of luck!–BjB

*And, just to tempt the future listener a bit: the last 3:13 minutes of the album constitute the single finest conclusion I’ve ever heard to an album.  And, yes, I’m including The Beatles and Talk Talk.  “Satisfying” doesn’t even capture how good this conclusion is.

**Finally, a huge thanks to my BBT/FB/Twitter friends: Richard, Thad, Lisa, Tobbe, Chris, Frank, Matt, Captain Red Beard, Alison, Nick, Nicolas, and, of course, John D.

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